In a 1998 lecture, Neil Postman offers ‘five ideas about technological change’ – all observations that remain remarkedly relevant 25 years later …
- We always pay a price for technology – the greater the technology, the greater the price … for every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage …“What will a new technology do?” is no more important than the question, “What will a new technology undo?”
- The advantages and disadvantages of new technologies are never distributed evenly among the population. This means that every new technology benefits some and harms others. There are even some who are not affected at all.
- Every great technology is embedded with an epistemological, political or social prejudice. Sometimes that bias is greatly to our advantage. Sometimes it is not.
- Technology changes everything and is, therefore, too important to be left entirely in the hands of Bill Gates. We must be cautious about technological innovation. The consequences of technological change are always vast, often unpredictable and largely irreversible.
- Technology tends to become mythic – that is, perceived as part of the natural order of things, and therefore tends to control more of our lives than is good for us. When a technology become mythic, it is always dangerous because it is then accepted as it is, and is therefore not easily susceptible to modification or control.
As always, Postman highlights a number of fundamental characteristics of technology that are often sidelined in the hype and excitement around any new digital innovation. All these points remind us that digital technologies are artefacts produced in specific political and historical contexts; that we need to be suspicious of those trying to profit from the production of new technologies; and that technology shapes society as much as society shapes technology.
Seen in this light, then, any new technology needs to be understood as something to be challenged, contested and pushed back on, rather than simply accepted as a fait accompli. As Postman (1998, p.5) concludes, “We need to proceed with our eyes wide open so that we many use technology rather than be used by it”.
Postman, N. (1998). Five things we need to know about technological change. talk delivered in Denver, March 28th